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Rene Redzepi's Japanese Adventure

December 8, 2016

©2015 BlazHoffski / Dahl TV. All Rights Reserved.

In 2004, the young Danish chef Rene Redzepi was asked to help set up a new restaurant in Copenhagen. It was given the name Noma, and it went on to revolutionize the world of gastronomy around the world.

From the start, the restaurant was unorthodox. All ingredients had to be natural, seasonal, often sourced from the wild, and solely from the Nordic region.

Within a few years, the restaurant had gained a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world. Then, in 2014, Redzepi announced that he had decided to take the restaurant to Tokyo, along with every single member of staff, from the chefs and waiting staff right down to the long-serving dish-washer.

There was more: instead of serving the same dishes they prepared in Denmark, Redzepi was planning an entirely new menu, using only produce sourced in Japan. It was a radical move and the risk of failure was high.

The restaurant opened in mid-January 2015 and ran for only six weeks. But it was a resounding success, and few who ate there are likely to forget the food and the experience.

Interview with Rene Redzepi

The decision to close the restaurant in Copenhagen in January 2014 and take the entire restaurant to another location was groundbreaking. Why did you choose Japan, rather than any other country?

I haven't traveled to all of the great cuisines. But of the ones I've been to, Japan is the one that intrigues me the most, where I find a complexity of cuisines. I thought, this is a place where we can learn so much.

What impression of Japan did you have before arriving?

I knew that Japanese culture was vast and rich and deep. I knew it went back centuries, and had many, many layers to it. Actually experiencing it and traveling around for several months before Noma Japan opened, I realized it would take a lifetime of discovery to go into this cuisine in depth. That was mind-blowing.

©2015 BlazHoffski / Dahl TV. All Rights Reserved.

Specifically, what was it about the food culture that drew you to Japan?

The easiest place to tap into the food culture is to visit the Tsukiji fish market. You have to go there to see the quality and diversity, the handling of ingredients and the traditions. It really is jaw-dropping.

So when you got here, was it exciting or was it daunting?

It was both. The food is so great in Japan and we were coming from an emerging food place where we’re only just starting to develop another level to our cuisine. So it was daunting. But at the same time it was amazing, as there was so much to tap into and to be inspired from.

Traveling around Japan, what aspects of Japanese food culture amazed you the most?

The different types of cuisines. To see there is not only one way of looking at food, there are many. From eating ramen all the way up to the very top of the food culture, the kaiseki meals, and everything in between. There is so much variety.

And every food ingredient seems to have a meaning, an articulated reason why it is eaten at that particular time of the year. That is something we don’t find in Denmark, where Easter and Christmas are the only times when people come together to eat and have a feeling.

©2015 BlazHoffski / Dahl TV. All Rights Reserved.

How did you track down the ingredients for the restaurant in Japan? Did you even know what were you looking for?

No, but we quickly learned that Japan is a shoreline culture and people live between the water and the mountains. So we needed to explore on the flat lands where the agriculture is. Then at the same time, we also needed to see the mountains. We needed to forage and see what was there.

We also needed to see the sheer diversity of climates, and the differences in climate and terroir, from the very north of Aomori down to the island of Ishigaki-jima (in Okinawa). We just hoped that in the discovery of these places we’d find enough inspiration and ingredients to shape our menu. It took us months of reading and research.

Something you took an interest in was shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist temple cuisine). Tell me about that.

In our studies of Japanese food, we found that religion had really influenced the eating habits quite a bit. Also, we have acquired a reputation as a restaurant that is "vegetable-forward" [where vegetables play a prominent part in the cuisine]. So, for us to actually go and experience a full vegan meal -- not just a single serving but a full menu -- was something I was very, very keen on exploring.

At first I thought that maybe we could base our entire menu planning in Japan on the inspiration of temple cuisine.

What was the single best dish you ate in Japan that stands out in your memory now?

It was tofu served with a yuzu-miso sauce, at a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. Having eaten tofu in America and Europe, and then to taste it there where it’s freshly steamed… It was so mind-blowing. We also went to see where the soymilk and yuba came from. We saw the stones grinding the soaked soybeans, and saw the soymilk being delivered to the restaurant -- that was wow! We understood then that the ingredients make an incredible difference. To me that dish was a perfect mouthful.

Did that inspire you to include a tofu dish on your own menu?

Absolutely. We weren’t trying to copy it but we were very inspired by it. We had tofu as part of shojin ryori. And visiting farmers around Japan, very often we’d be given a bowl of miso soup, or tofu with grated ginger. It was clear that tofu is something that people grow up with -- almost like rye bread to us Danes. I wanted to master that, to do it so that our Japanese guests would enjoy the quality of the dish but also be surprised by its flavor and the combination of ingredients [accompanied by foraged walnuts].

For Japan, your stated aim was to come up with an entirely new menu, totally different from those you serve in Copenhagen. Why?

To me, the idea of serving a replica of what we do back home was like saying, "The traditions of Japan are not good enough for us to explore." One of my key motivations for creating a menu from scratch was that I thought people would consider us weird [if we didn’t]. Basically, I thought it would be disrespectful.

©2015 BlazHoffski / Dahl TV. All Rights Reserved.

Are there ingredients from Japan that you continue to find fascinating?

One of the big inspirations that we took is the [tradition of] fermented foods. We actually found something we share in common here. Because of the relative similarities in climate -- having distinct seasons, and especially going through winters -- both places are built on fermentations. In Denmark, the main ones were always bread, and also fermented fish and fermented meat. We [Danes] have mostly forgotten about those things, so tapping into that is something that we still explore.

But with these fermentations, we’ve imported the ideas but made them our own here, using the produce and the microbiological terroir here.

In a sense there is a part of Japan in our kitchen, floating in every single serving -- although a Japanese person would not see it as a Japanese ingredient. But the DNA and inspiration come from our journeys in Japan.

How has the experience in Japan influenced your subsequent activities?

It has influenced the fermentation facility that we're building, which will be completely state-of-the-art. That is one of our biggest investments, the development of "the fermented kitchen," as we call it. Currently we have 101 different pastes or liquids -- we call them "ingredient building blocks" -- that we have developed.

We’re making miso type fermentations, but we’re also exploring with all sorts of legumes [dubbed "pea-so"] and nuts and everything we can.

We have a tradition of lacto-fermenting ingredients, which is very European, typically done with cabbage [sauerkraut]. That can be done with almost any ingredient that has a bit of sugar in it. Then there are all the vinegars, the wines, and beers. There’s all the bread fermentations. All the salted fish, and salted meats.

There are also many different temperatures that you can ferment at, from 30 degrees Celsius up to 60. There’s all the blackened fruit you can make, inspired by the black garlic [of Japan].

Interview: Robbie Swinnerton

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